Drinkstone remembers third man named on village war memorial

Drinkstone village sign
Drinkstone village sign

A Drinkstone man who died in action in France 100 years ago, during the First World War, is being remembered in a special exhibition in his home village.

Corporal James Gill, aged 19, was serving with the 1st Battalion Suffolk Regiment when he was wounded attacking German trenches during the Battle of Loos in northern France.

He was evacuated to a hospital in St Omer, but died from his wounds on October 6, 1915. He is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery.

An exhibition charting his life and military service has been compiled on behalf of the Drinkstone War Memorial Institute (Village Hall) by Robin Sharp, the Vice Chairman.

He said: “The exhibition is part of Drinkstone’s dedicated remembrance of the 15 men from the village who lost their lives during the First World War. We are focusing on each man in turn, as we reach the centenary of their deaths - James Gill is the third Drinkstone man to be commemorated in this way.

“We feel that this is a fitting way to mark the impact that their loss had on the village, to honour their lives and keep the solemn pledge ‘We will remember them’.”

The exhibition, which is free to view, is on display in All Saints’ Church, Drinkstone, between October 5-10 and then at Drinkstone Village Hall until November 11, 2015, Remembrance Day.

Mr Sharp added: “We’re proud to be able to remember and honour James Gill and show that his life and sacrifice have not been forgotten by this generation of Drinkstonians.

“We were delighted to make contact with some of his descendants in The United States and Canada, one of whom provided us with our only photograph of James aged 5, pictured with his mother and two siblings, which is included in the exhibition.

“The stories of each man are, however, not ‘complete’ and we’d be delighted to receive any further information about James Gill, or of the other 14 men, to help us to celebrate their lives.”

WHAT IS KNOWN OF JAMES GILL?

James Gill was born on November 9, 1895, in Bury St Edmunds, eldest of seven children of James and Agnes (née Sheppard) Gill.

James Gill senior was a career soldier of more than 22 years with the Suffolk Regiment.

Consequently James junior moved home several times in his early years, attending schools in Ipswich, Bury and finally Drinkstone in 1907.

This was a return ‘home’ for the Gills, as James Gill senior had been born in the village, as had his father and his grandfather.

In the 1911 census, James Gill junior’s occupation was described as a ‘Domestic Groom’. However, at the end of May 1913 at 17 years old, James joined the 2nd Battalion Suffolk Regiment.

When war was declared on the August 4, 1914, James was serving in Ireland, but by August 23 he had landed at Le Havre, France, and was hurrying off to confront the Germans in Belgium.

Gill probably had his first taste of action on August 26, in a rearguard action during the orderly ‘Retreat from Mons’.

The 2nd Suffolks fell back to the Cambrai-Le Cateau road and were told ‘you are going to fight it out here’.

In the subsequent Battle of Le Cateau, the 2nd Battalion mounted a stubborn defence, out-manned and out-gunned by superior numbers. After more than eight hours of incessant bombardment and fighting, the Battalion was almost entirely decimated but would not surrender. Its members were eventually overwhelmed, those that could escape did but most were killed or taken prisoner.

At roll call the following day, the War Diary noted that there were just 114 able-bodied on parade out of almost 1000 men.

Among survivors, we assume, was James Gill though whether he had been wounded and needed time to recover, there is no evidence at present. At some later stage he transferred to the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, though the 1st Suffolks did not serve on the Western Front until January 18, 1915.

Gill was certainly deployed with the 1st Suffolks the following September at the Battle of Loos and he had been promoted to acting corporal.

When the 1st Battalion arrived in the battle area on September 27, 1915, the main attack had taken place, but nevertheless the fighting was far from over.

On October 3 the Suffolks were ordered to attack the so-called ‘Little Willie’ trench system, part of the German Hohenzollern Redoubt. The attack was due to begin at 8.30pm, but was ‘unable to make sufficient progress owing to the crowded state of the communication trench. The Battalion not having arrived, zero hour was postponed till 10.30, and then till midnight. Actually the attack did not begin till nearly 2am’.

By that time, the position of the moon had changed and other points of reference for the attack had altered or disappeared; there was no artillery support.

Three companies of the Suffolks groped their way forward but with direction completely lost, the attack went awry and failed.

Casualties were heavy amounting to some 160 officers and men, missing, killed or wounded.

Among those wounded was Corporal James Gill. He was sent to the 10th Stationary Hospital in St Omer, some 40-odd miles from the battlefield. It was here, on Wednesday October 6, 1915, that James Gill died as a result of his wounds.

The fateful message reporting James Gill’s death would have been delivered to his parents James and Agnes Gill, but there is likely to have been someone else, apart from immediate family, who would mourn and shed tears at the news of his death.

Miss Lilian (Lily) Harvey, 19 years old, lived in Park Cottages at Drinkstone Park. She had also attended Drinkstone School and was named as James’ legatee. It was she, rather than his parents or siblings, who received his outstanding army pay of £9 5s. 10d (£9.29p) and a War Gratuity of £7 10s. (£7.50p). Would it be too presumptive to say that Lily was, perhaps, James’ sweetheart?

James Gill is still remembered in Drinkstone a century after his death – the third man on the village’s war memorial to have fallen in the First World War.